On ‘presenting as’ a man

A colleague reports to me that, in one of her lectures, a young fellow began his intervention with the following preface: ‘Speaking as someone who presents as a man…’

What are we to make of this?

It is tempting to make fun of it.  In the circumstances, he could just as informatively have said, ‘Speaking as someone who presents as white…’ or ‘Speaking as someone who presents as having tattoos…’ or, for that matter, ‘Speaking as someone who presents as sitting in the third row….’

I need to point out that he was (I am told) not someone who ‘presents as a man’ in any sense in which that phrase is illocutionarily happy.   He wasn’t, for instance, a cross-dresser, or transgendered, or a male-looking intersexual.  He was a just an ordinary white man (more exactly, a teenager), with visible tattoos, sitting in the third row.

The suggestion been put to me that he may have been trying to demonstrate a special kind of woke-ness. He was showing his awareness that gender roles are partly constituted by self-presentation.  But it is a bit hard to suppose that this would have come as news to anyone in that class, or even outside it.  Can there be anyone left, even among the bad guys, who does not know that manhood is partly constituted by, and in, the presentation of self?  (‘Man up!’, ‘Be a man!’, ‘What kind of man are you?’) And since everyone knows this it seems odd to make such a grandiose gesture in support of the obvious, especially in a university.

A different suggestion is that he may have been trying to undermine, by affirming with irony,  the epistemic authority of men.   The ‘speaking as’ locution is often used in the first person to claim theoretical authority, i.e. the epistemic privilege of one’s own perspective, as in: ‘speaking as a woman…’ , ‘speaking as a Jew…’ ‘speaking as a professor…’  So the boy’s preface could have been meant as an ironic, post-modernising riff on male-authority claims. Not, ‘speaking as a man’ (=> ‘I know these things!’), but speaking as someone who so presents and, in drawing attention to that  presentation, thereby implicitly undermining patriarchal authority.  How? If all there is to a man’s perspective is what follows from man-presentation, then people will come to see that those who so present don’t have any real authority.   What sort of epistemic authority could come from presentation alone?   If I want to know how things stand in string theory, I will ask a theoretical physicist—but I’ll stay away from someone who says he ‘presents as a theoretical physicist’. I won’t even go to him if I’m wondering what life is like as a theoretical physicist.  For all I know he may mean that he just plays one on TV.  If any epistemic privilege comes with that position, is the privilege of an actor, not of a physicist.

There is a further catch. Part of what it is to be a man, in our culture, is to not affirm or imply that manhood is achieved solely by or in presentation.   To put it loosely, a boy who prefaces his interventions with, ‘speaking as someone who presents as a man’ raises the suspicion, in that very preface, that he is not really (or not yet) a man.  For it is unmanly to self-consciously present as a man.  And if one is not yet a man but hopes to become one, there is a lot more work to be done than hedging one’s remarks with reference to a man’s perspective.  That suggests the intervention under scrutiny may have rested on a false presupposition about our concept of ‘a man’, namely, that presenting makes things so.  But because that is so obviously false, no one was likely to count against the authority of men the lesser, or different, status of someone who merely ‘presents as’ a man, i.e. who is not a ‘real man’.  The other guys in the lecture, on hearing his remark, were unlikely to blossom into self-reflection, ‘OMG—that’s me too, a mere presentation, a performance!’  More likely they thought, ‘WTF—him again.’  If so, male authority probably emerged unscathed.

So maybe we should revise the account.  Perhaps the interventional preface was intended by the boy only to disown his own manhood and any claim to authority that might come with that.  His point was not so much social as personal: ‘I hereby choose not to speak as a man [which I am], but instead as one who merely so presents.’   I am not so sure, however, that one gets to speak as a man-presenter just by uttering prefaces like that.  (It would have been interesting to know what transgendered students in class thought of his intervention.  Would they have thought it enough to permit him to speak as, or with, them? I have my doubts.)

Offhand, my feeling is that even the purely personal explanation is deficient.  It is clear that although most social roles involve the presentation of self, few are wholly constituted by self-presentation. That is why a white woman cannot just ‘present herself’ into being black, and why—a fact that now causes much personal misery and  conflict—a male cannot just ‘present himself’ into being a woman.

But this point goes deeper.  By the same token, one cannot just ‘present oneself’ into actually presenting oneself.  That is to say, there are also social criteria for a particular performance to count as a presentation of self.  When the artist Greyson Perry dresses as his alter-ego Claire (below) he is not presenting as a woman, not only because he is not trying to pass, and not only because he is failing to pass, but because Claire’s outfits and speech do not even amount to self-presentations. They are performance art.


So I am now thinking, with some sadness, that the boy in the lecture hall not only failed to undermine patriarchal authority, and failed to disown his own masculinity, he did not even manage to present as a (‘real’) man.  Perhaps he succeeded in presenting as the sort of white college kid with tattoos who goes around saying ‘I speak as someone who presents as a man.’  I guess that too is a kind of performance art.

I am not denying the urgent need for change in our damaging concepts of masculinity (and femininity), nor am I pessimistic about the prospects for change.  It is a question of ways and means.  We can change these concepts and, to the extent that our selves are constituted by them, we can change our selves. But we cannot simply ‘present’—let alone think—ourselves into personal, social, or conceptual change.  That is why Marx wrote, ‘Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it’.   He did not write, ‘the point is to change it by doing philosophy’.  And were Marx with us today, I am sure he would say that self-conscious self-presentation is about as effective in producing real social change as what he, somewhat unfairly, dismissed as ‘philosophy’.

9 thoughts on “On ‘presenting as’ a man

  1. “That is why Marx wrote, ‘Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it’. He did not write, ‘the point is to change it by doing philosophy” Quite so. Indeed a large part of the point of the German Ideology is to argue (as against he Young Hegelians) that we cannot change the world *simply* by doing philosophy as his opponents sometimes seemed to think.


  2. Speaking as a patriarchal white male, don’t you ever get bored of your neo-marxist BS?


  3. “The suggestion been put to me that he may have been trying to demonstrate a special kind of woke-ness. He was showing his awareness that gender roles are partly constituted by self-presentation. But it is a bit hard to suppose that this would have come as news to anyone in that class, or even outside it.”

    A more charitable interpretation is that the student was (somewhat ritually) nodding to the fairly common view that self-presentation is not entirely reliable evidence of gender. “Unless we have talked about it, you only know that I present as a man and not my attitude towards myself, and that goes for everyone else who presents one way or another.”

    That may or may not be a very productive way of going about things, but this is a real or imagined *student*, and it is understandable when students don’t go about things in the most productive way. I hope it’s an imagined student. Otherwise I recommend this to your colleague and especially to you: http://philosopherscocoon.typepad.com/blog/2017/12/learning-to-love-ones-students.html


  4. The “presenting as” wording reminded me of the current row in the Labour Party over all-women shortlists. What’s at issue isn’t the principle of AWS, which nobody is contesting, but the rubric that’s now being used, which specifies that AWS are open to people “identifying as women”. Some women have objected to this, on the grounds that it enables a male who “identifies as” a woman to take a place on an AWS without having lived as a woman for any length of time or taken any steps towards transitioning. (Another point that nobody’s contesting is that born-male individuals who have transitioned, or are in the process of doing so, are entitled to be considered women; that’s the law, in point of fact.) It’s also been argued that women in general don’t “identify as” women, but simply are women – so that the new AWS wording actually means that only trans women are eligible; I’m sure this isn’t the intention, but it illustrates how different these two conceptions of “being a woman” can be: one based on biology, the other on how you define yourself (and perhaps how you ‘present’). I’m not sure whether the two can be reconciled.


  5. The first thing that came to mind upon reading this post: U.S. parody radio talk show host Phil Hendrie’s alter ego, one of many, Doug Dannger, who incessantly qualifies his every utterance as issuing from the perspective of “a gay man and a gay journalist.” It makes for hilarity, because of course most of the so-qualified remarks have nothing to do with gender, sexual preference, or professional identity. Instead, Hendrie’s interviews with Dannger (i.e., with himself) are rich in non sequitur, to good effect.

    But I catch a whiff of “Kids these days!,” and I think the post misses the possibility that the gist of the student’s remarks–unlike Dannger’s–might have been enhanced by a preface describing how he self-presents. I guess I don’t view the phrase as being so outlandish or, as you put it using the (to me) insufferable construction of Austin, Searle, et al., not illocutionarily felicitous. I don’t see how being, even obviously, “just an ordinary white man” precludes a sense of self-presentation as a man. Or, for that matter, as white, or as middle class. These seem worthy characteristics one can own and claim without intending irony or a flip tribute to construction, and in so doing one reveals that one masks much of one’s identity with a tacit assumption of one’s ordinariness.

    What if the student had said, “Speaking as someone who presents as a man, I confess I occasionally wonder what it might be like to present as a woman”? Does the meaning suffer if he drops “someone who presents as”? I think so. An ordinary white man’s prerogative to present as a woman could be just another prerogative of ordinary white men, particularly of those who fail (or decline) to acknowledge their own responsibility for presenting as such. (One can’t be responsible for being a man; one can be responsible for presenting as one.) This is your “personal” reading of the student’s point: “I hereby choose not to speak as a man [which I am], but instead as one who merely so presents.” The word “merely” there is doing a lot of work, along with “simply” in the last paragraph. It makes self-presentation appear gratuitous, disingenuous. How about, instead, “I hereby choose to speak not only as a man [which I am], but also as one who so presents”?

    Your other examples–presenting as somebody with tattoos, as somebody sitting in the third row, or as a theoretical physicist–do seem off, infelicitous, ridiculous, like Dannger’s identity fetishes. I’d expect to see these on bumper stickers, the pre-Twitter medium of choice for self-parody and self-expression: I PRESENT AS A PARENT WITH A CHILD WHO PRESENTS AS AN HONOR STUDENT. Bumper stickers are ineffective in producing real social change, too, aren’t they? How about kneeling during the playing of the U.S. national anthem? We cannot simply “kneel” ourselves into personal, social, or conceptual change, can we?


  6. This analysis is just another example of an old white cis hetero male using the socially constructed notions of “reason” and “logic” to impose the oppressive linguistic norms that perpetuate patriarchy and white supremacy.

    … Kidding! Prof. Green, people like this boy-student don’t operate in the same world as you–a world in which words actually refer to things out there in the world. They literally believe that everything–yes, everything–is a social construct designed to keep some people powerful and everyone else oppressed. Since white men have all the power (allegedly), almost anything they say or do is taken to perpetuate that oppression. (There might actually be more depth to this story somewhere in the “scholarship”, but students like this aren’t getting it.) As it stands, this is clearly some unfalsifiable, circular nonsense, but of course you would only say that to perpetuate patriarchy.

    At best, this boy was acknowledging this “fact” (since this stuff is not taught as theory but as fact) and thereby knocking himself (and thus patriarchy) down a peg. I believe Prof. Jonathan Haidt has characterized this sort of quasi-religious behaviour as a kind of public ritual to cleanse oneself of one’s original sin, so to speak. Creepy.

    Of course, this doesn’t make much sense because these folks also believe that gender is a social construct. And don’t even bother trying to make sense of transgenderism–after all, logical coherence is also an oppressive social construct! (That’s likely why those Hypatia editors went after Prof. Rebecca Tuvel.) At worst, he’s just mimicking what the other child-students around him say. Or maybe, one can hope, it’s the other way around.

    This might sound uncharitable, but then again, the principle of charity is not something postmodern “thinkers” take seriously. In fact, they would probably say your adopting it is an expression of your privilege and is thus oppressive.

    All of this must sound so ludicrous to serious academics. But that just goes to show they’re not paying attention to what’s being taught in other departments (and sometimes in their own). As a starting point, I would recommend reading the piece linked below by Prof. Peggy McIntosh (the first piece outlining these concepts of “male privilege” and “white privilege”) to give you a sense of the quality of the thinking you’re contending with. It’s required reading in pretty much every women’s/gender studies, social work, and education department.

    Click to access White_Privilege_and_Male_Privilege_Personal_Account-Peggy_McIntosh.pdf

    As an aside, when you hear some people complain about too many conservative academics on campus, it’s usually these postmodern folks complaining about people like you. (Crazy, right?) For instance: “These days, I’ve come to see academia as playing out a microcosm of the social conservatism which, writ large, is responsible for the current political situation in the US: a reactionary backlash against perceived threats to the privilege until now reserved for a small group of rich white men.” (http://www.whatisitliketobeaphilosopher.com/carrie-jenkins/)


  7. “I need to point out that he was (I am told) not someone who ‘presents as a man’ in any sense in which that phrase is illocutionarily happy. He wasn’t, for instance, a cross-dresser, or transgendered, or a male-looking intersexual. He was a just an ordinary white man (more exactly, a teenager), with visible tattoos, sitting in the third row.”

    Was anyone actually in a position to judge this? What kind of evidence available to anyone in the room would tell them that this individual wasn’t e.g. a male-looking intersexual, gender non-binary, or a trans-woman who for some reason wasn’t attempting to present as a woman? I don’t even think cross-dressing can be ruled out, as I’ve seen some pretty convincing drag kings.

    It seems to me the only thing that could reasonably exclude these possibilities without a gross invasion of privacy (ESP, checking their medical records, peering inside their pants) would be their own statement to this effect.

    (Which could have happened, granted, but you do not say so.)

    So the first possibility is that this individual really is indicating that they do not in fact identify as being a man.

    (The same thing applies for ‘presenting as white’, of course — you can’t tell that someone is white for certain just by looking at them. This doesn’t even involve mysterious ‘postmodern’ categories or identifications — old school racial categories can and do readily make this distinction, hence ‘passing’.)

    A second possibility is that the only thing that’s relevant to whatever comes afterwards is the individual’s presentation. E.g. “Speaking as someone who presents as a man, I find I get called ‘dude’ by strangers a lot”.

    Strangers can’t do anything other than judge on presentation, and presumably would call male-looking intersexuals, gender non-binary folk, or convincing drag kings ‘dude’ just as readily as people who are ‘ordinary’ men.

    Calling attention to the role that presentation as opposed to identity is playing here and in many other circumstances seems apropos and insightful.


    • Thanks for this. These are all pertinent points. Since I got the example second hand, from the professor, I thought I’d just ask her how she knew the student wasn’t transgender, intersex, etc. She tells me that that is what, in another context, he told her. She presumed that he should be believed. I guess it’s conceivable that it was all a double bluff. In which case you could think about it as a hypothetical.


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